LONGSHOTS: ESPN polls are fanning the flames of national lunacy
by Dave Long
Well the five-point underdog Patriots again confounded the ďexpertsĒ on Sunday by beating the vaunted Chargers 24-21 in round two of the Super Bowl derby. Iím not saying theyíre unbeatable, but when do you think the rest of America is going to finally get it?
I understand being the dog, since the Chargers were the number one seed and playing at home. Although being 7-1 on the road under coach Bill in the playoffs has to mean something. How about Richard Seymour being the only guy selected to the Pro Bowl, or an ESPN panel of eight ďexpertsď where only Sean Salisbury took the Pats? And finally thereís the Sport Nation poll of more than 320,000 voters. A full 79.7 percent picked the Chargers, with an astonishing 48 percent saying it would be a blowout! Not sure what those folks were smoking, but it canít be legal, since you had to be high to think the Patriots would let that happen.
And guess what, they didnĎt. Instead they did what they always do, they hung in when things went bad, like their field position the entire first half, and made the most plays when it counted most ó the top being Troy Brownís season-saving strip after a Marlon McCree interception appeared to spell doom. That goes up there with when Havlicek stole the ball if you ask me. It wasnít an easy game by any means, but in satisfaction, itís in my top five in the Belichick era. Next up comes Peyton Manning and the Colts for what could be epic. Before that, however, weíve got to spend the week talking football and here are a few topics Iíll throw into the discussion:
The receivers: I take back every bad thing Iíve ever said about Reche Caldwell. Even the unprintable stuff from Sunday when he pulled up a yard short of the sticks on a third- down route and was dropped an inch shy of first down in the opening drive of the second half. But with a fumble recovery, a TD and the 49-yard catch-and-run on the final drive that was very David Givens-like, heĎs earned his stripes. Ditto for Jabar Gaffney. They may not be all pros, but they do seem to be learning how to play like a Patriot.
In Bill we trust: While David Givens, Deion Branch, Ty Law, Joe Andruzzi, Damien Woody and Willie McGinest and others are home counting their money, replacements Roosevelt Colvin, Steven Neal, Dan Koppen Caldwell and Gaffney all made big contributions last week. So did Steve Gostkowski, who was perfect. But the final test comes next week when Adam Vinatieri, who had five field goals vs. Baltimore, will be on the other side of the field warming up (gulp) if Manning is driving the Colts to the winning score as time runs down. They canít let that happen.
What goes around comes around: Iím going to give LaDainian Tomlinson a pass on his remarks about the Patriots lacking class. Emotions are high after a bitter loss, like they were with Isiah Thomas and Dennis Rodmanís racially laced comments about Larry Bird after an excruciating Game Seven loss at the Garden in 1987. But LT, if you are so concerned about class and showing people up, why donít you say something to Shawne Merriman when he dances in the face of a quarterback he just sacked? Itís the same thing ó what goes around comes around.
Smart guys in the media: Homers like Fred Smerlas would pick the Patriots in a blowout even if they were playing the Klingon Empire, and then there are those who make the unpopular pick to look impartial and smart (in case it works out). The latest is WEEI regular Tom Curran, who had SD 31-10 winners for a litany of incorrect reasons.
The Manning factor: I know the history, but they said the same thing about John Elway, after losing his first three Super Bowls. At least until he won in his last two. Iím sure this puts me in the minority, but I expect Manning to be a real problem all day long.
Secretary of Defense: Iíll believe the Colt D is as good as it looks only after I see them do it to the Patriots. Yes theyíve played very well, get a lot of picks and have playmakers in Dwight Freeney and Bob Sanders. But who has it come against? The worst game coach in the NFL, where Herm Edwards took the George Bush role in being the last American to know it was time to yank an under-performing leader in the win over KC. And, with all due respect, the Ravens donít bring to mind Air Coryell, do they?
Grady Little and Game Seven: Iím not saying he was right, but you want to know why Grady Little didnít yank Pedro in 2003? Same reason Bill Belichick will never yank Tom Brady with the game on the line. Even when he struggles, like Sunday with three picks and a sure fourth one dropped. In the big moments you trust and stick with your best guy.
The key factors: Control tempo by running it down Indyís throat and bring defensive pressure. The book says you canít blitz Manning, but the Steelers did it last year. I say do it again. Then there are turnovers, but since this is the playoffs, thatís a given.
The Steve Vaillancourt factor: You know some oddball, quirky figure will have an impact on events in Indy. My moneyís on the reliable Brown, or maybe a Chad Jackson runback after not getting in even a play in San Diego.
The prediction: I had last weekís game at 27-24 Pats. This one seems exactly the same to me so Iíll stick with a 27-24 win in an even scarier game at Indy.
Dave Long can be heard on Sports Night with Dave Long nightly from 6 to 7 p.m. on 610 WGIR-AM